An editorial by Joseph Smith Jr. published in the Times and Seasons, 1 April 1842, entitled “Try the Spirits”.

  1. Recent occurrences that have transpired among us render it an imperative duty devolving upon me to say something in relation to the spirits by which men are actuated. It is evident from the apostles’ writings that many false spirits existed in their day, and had gone forth into the world, and that it needed intelligence which God alone could impart to detect false spirits, and to prove what spirits were of God. The world in general have been grossly ignorant in regard to this one thing, and why should they be otherwise — for no man knows the things of God, but by the spirit of God. The Egyptians were not able to discover the difference between the miracles of Moses and those of the magicians until they came to be tested together; and if Moses had not appeared in their midst, they would unquestionably have thought that the miracles of the magicians were performed through the mighty power of God, for they were great miracles that were performed by them — a supernatural agency was developed and great power manifested.
  2. The witch of Endor is no less singular a personage. Clothed with a powerful agency, she raised the prophet Samuel from his grave, and he appeared before the astonished king and revealed unto him his future destiny. Who is to tell whether this woman is of God and a righteous woman, or whether the power she possessed was of the Devil and her a witch, as represented by the Bible? It is easy for us to say now, but if we had lived in her day, which of us could have unraveled the mystery?
  3. It would have been equally as difficult for us to tell by what spirit the prophets prophesied, or by what power the apostles spoke and worked miracles. Who could have told whether the power of Simon the sorcerer was of God or of the Devil? There always did, in every age, seem to be a lack of intelligence pertaining to this subject. Spirits of all kinds have been manifested in every age and almost among all people. If we go among the pagans, they have their spirits — the Mohamedans, the Jews, the Christians, the Indians — all have their spirits, all have a supernatural agency, and all contend that their spirits are of God. Who shall solve the mystery? Try the spirits, says John, but who is to do it? The learned, the eloquent, the philosopher, the sage, the divine — all are ignorant. The heathens will boast of their gods, and of the great things that have been unfolded by their oracles. The Mussulman will boast of his Koran and of the divine communications that his progenitors have received. The Jews have had numerous instances, both ancient and modern among them, of men who have professed to be inspired and sent to bring about great events, and the Christian world has not been slow in making up the number.
  4. Try the spirits, but what by? Are we to try them by the creeds of men? What preposterous folly — what sheer ignorance — what madness! Try the motions and actions of an eternal being (for I contend that all spirits are such) by a thing that was conceived in ignorance and brought forth in folly — a cobweb of yesterday. Angels would hide their faces, and devils would be ashamed and insulted, and would say, Paul we know, and Jesus we know, but who are you? Let each man of society make a creed and try evil spirits by it, and the Devil would shake his sides; it is all that he would ask — all that he would desire. Yet many of them do this, and hence many spirits are abroad in the world. One great evil is that men are ignorant of the nature of spirits: their power, laws, government, intelligence, etc., and imagine that when there is anything like power, revelation, or vision manifested, that it must be of God. Hence, the Methodists, Presbyterians, and others frequently possess a spirit that will cause them to lie down, and during its operation, animation is frequently entirely suspended; they consider it to be the power of God and a glorious manifestation from God — a manifestation of what? Is there any intelligence communicated? Are the curtains of Heaven withdrawn or the purposes of God developed? Have they seen and conversed with an angel — or have the glories of futurity burst upon their view? No! But their body has been inanimate, the operation of their spirit suspended, and all the intelligence that can be obtained from them when they arise, is a shout of Glory, or Hallelujah, or some incoherent expression; but they have had “the power.”
  5. The Shaker will whirl around on his heel, impelled by a supernatural agency or spirit, and think that he is governed by the spirit of God; and the Jumper will jump and enter into all kinds of extravagances. A Primitive Methodist will shout under the influence of that spirit until he will rend the heavens with his cries; while the Quakers (or Friends), moved as they think by the spirit of God, will sit still and say nothing. Is God the author of all this? If not all of it, which does he recognize? Surely, such a heterogeneous mass of confusion never can enter into the kingdom of Heaven. Every one of these professes to be competent to try his neighbor’s spirit, but no one can try his own, and what is the reason? Because they have not a key to unlock, no rule wherewith to measure, and no criterion whereby they can test it. Could anyone tell the length, breadth, or height of a building without a rule? Test the quality of metals without a criterion, or point out the movements of the planetary system without a knowledge of astronomy? Certainly not; and if such ignorance as this is manifested about a spirit of this kind, who can describe an angel of light? If Satan should appear as one in glory, who can tell his color, his signs, his appearance, his glory, or what is the manner of his manifestation? Who can detect the spirit of the French Prophets with their revelations, and visions, and power, and manifestations? Or who can point out the spirit of the Irvingites with their apostles, and prophets, and visions, and tongues, and interpretations, etc., etc. Or who can drag into daylight and develop the hidden mysteries of the false spirits that so frequently are made manifest among the Latter Day Saints? We answer that no man can do this without the Priesthood and having a knowledge of the laws by which spirits are governed; for as no man knows the things of God, but by the spirit of God, so no man knows the spirit of the Devil, and his power and influence, but by possessing intelligence which is more than human, and having unfolded through the medium of the Priesthood the mysterious operations of his devices — without knowing the angelic form, the sanctified look and gesture, and the zeal that is frequently manifested by him for the glory of God, together with the prophetic spirit, the gracious influence, the godly appearance, and the holy garb, which is so characteristic of his proceedings and his mysterious windings. A man must have the discerning of spirits before he can drag into daylight this hellish influence and unfold it unto the world in all its soul-destroying, diabolical, and horrid colors; for nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit when they think they have the spirit of God. Thousands have felt the influence of its terrible power and baneful effects. Long pilgrimages have been undertaken, penances endured, and pain, misery, and ruin have followed in their train; nations have been convulsed, kingdoms overthrown, provinces laid waste, and blood, carnage, and desolation are habiliments in which it has been clothed. The Turks, the Hindus, the Jews, the Christians, the Indians — in fact all nations have been deceived, imposed upon, and injured through the mischievous effects of false spirits.
  6. As we have noticed before, the great difficulty lies in the ignorance of the nature of spirits, of the laws by which they are governed, and the signs by which they may be known. If it requires the spirit of God to know the things of God, and the spirit of the Devil can only be unmasked through that medium, then it follows as a natural consequence that unless some person or persons have a communication or revelation from God, unfolding to them the operation of the spirit, they must eternally remain ignorant of these principles; for I contend that if one man cannot understand these things but by the spirit of God, ten thousand men cannot. It is alike out of the reach of the wisdom of the learned, the tongue of the eloquent, the power of the mighty. And we shall at last have to come to this conclusion, whatever we may think of revelation, that without it we can neither know nor understand anything of God, or the Devil; and however unwilling the world may be to acknowledge this principle, it is evident from the multifarious creeds and notions concerning this matter that they understand nothing of this principle, and it is equally as plain that without a divine communication they must remain in ignorance. The world always mistook false prophets for true ones, and those that were sent of God they considered to be false prophets, and hence they killed, stoned, punished, and imprisoned the true prophets, and they had to hide themselves in deserts, and dens, and caves of the earth, and though the most honorable men of the earth, they banished them from their society as vagabonds, while they cherished, honored, and supported knaves, vagabonds, hypocrites, impostors, and the basest of men.
  7. A man must have the discerning of spirits, as we before stated, to understand these things, and how is he to obtain this gift if there are no gifts of the spirit? And how can these gifts be obtained without revelation? Christ ascended into Heaven, and gave gifts to men; and he gave some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. And how were apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists chosen? By prophecy (revelation) and by laying on of hands — by a divine communication, and a divinely appointed ordinance — through the medium of the Priesthood, organized according to the order of God by divine appointment. The apostles in ancient times held the keys of this Priesthood — of the mysteries of the kingdom of God, and consequently were enabled to unlock and unravel all things pertaining to the government of the church, the welfare of society, the future destiny of men, and the agency, power, and influence of spirits; for they could control them at pleasure, bid them depart in the name of Jesus, and detect their mischievous and mysterious operations when trying to palm themselves upon the church in a religious garb, and militate against the interest of the church and the spread of truth. We read that they cast out devils in the name of Jesus, and when a woman possessing the spirit of divination cried before Paul and Silas, These are the servants of the Most High God that show unto us the way of salvation, they detected the spirit. And although she spoke favorably of them, Paul commanded the spirit to come out of her, and saved themselves from the opprobrium that might have been heaped upon their heads through an affiance with her, in the development of her wicked principles which they certainly would have been charged with if they had not rebuked the evil spirit. A power similar to this existed through the medium of the Priesthood in different ages. Moses could detect the magicians’ power and show that he was God’s servant — he knew when he was upon the mountain (through revelation) that Israel was engaged in idolatry; he could develop the sin of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, detect witches and wizards in their proceedings, and point out the true prophets of the Lord. Joshua knew how to detect the man who had stolen the wedge of gold and the Babylonish garment. Michaiah could point out the false spirit by which the four hundred prophets were governed, and if his advice had been taken, many lives would have been spared (2 Chron. 18) [2 Chron. 7]. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and many other prophets possessed this power. Our Savior, the apostles, and even the members of the church were endowed with this gift, for, says Paul (1 Cor. 12) [1 Cor. 1:48], To one is given the gift of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discerning of spirits. All these proceeded from the same spirit of God and were the gifts of God. The Ephesian church were enabled by this principle, to try those that said they were apostles, and were not, and found them liars. (Rev. 2:2) [Rev. 1:8]
  8. In tracing the thing to the foundation, and looking at it philosophically, we shall find a very material difference between the body and the spirit. The body is supposed to be organized matter, and the spirit, by many, is thought to be immaterial, without substance. With this latter statement we should beg leave to differ, and state: the spirit is a substance, that it is material, but that it is more pure, elastic, and refined matter than the body; that it existed before the body, can exist in the body, and will exist separate from the body when the body will be moldering in the dust, and will in the resurrection be again united with it. Without attempting to describe this mysterious connection and the laws that govern the body and the spirit of man — their relationship to each other, and the design of God in relation to the human body and spirit — I would just remark that the spirits of men are eternal; that they are governed by the same Priesthood that Abraham, Melchizedek, and the apostles were; that they are organized according to that Priesthood which is everlasting, without beginning of days or end of years; that they all move in their respective spheres and are governed by the law of God; that when they appear upon earth, they are in a probationary state and are preparing, if righteous, for a future and greater glory; that the spirits of good men cannot interfere with the wicked beyond their prescribed bounds, for Michael the archangel dared not bring a railing accusation against the Devil, but said, The Lord rebuke you, Satan.
  9. It would seem also that wicked spirits have their bounds, limits, and laws by which they are governed or controlled, and know their future destiny; hence, those that were in the maniac said to our Savior, Are you come to torment us before the time? And when Satan presented himself before the Lord, among the sons of God, he said that he came from going to and fro in the earth, and from wandering up and down in it, and he is emphatically called the prince of the power of the air. And it is very evident that they possess a power that none but those who have the Priesthood can control, as we have before adverted to in the case of the sons of Sceva.
  10. Having said so much upon the general principles without referring to the peculiar situation, power, and influence of the magicians of Egypt, the wizards and witches of the Jews, the oracles of the heathen, their necromancers, soothsayers, and astrologers, the maniacs or those possessed of devils in the apostles’ days, we will notice and try to detect (so far as we have the scriptures for our aid) some few instances of the development of false spirits in more modern times, and in this our day.
  11. The French Prophets were possessed of a spirit that deceived; they existed in Vivarais and Dauphiny in great numbers in the year 1688. There were many boys and girls from seven to twenty-five; they had strange fits, as in tremblings and faintings, which made them stretch out their legs and arms, as in a swoon. They remained a while in trances, and coming out of them uttered all that came in their mouths (see Buck’s Theological Dictionary). Now God never had any prophets that acted in this way; there was nothing indecorous in the proceeding of the Lord’s prophets in any age. Neither had the apostles, nor prophets in the apostles’ day, anything of this kind. Paul says, You may all prophesy, one by one; and if anything be revealed to another, let the first hold his peace, for the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets. But here we find that the prophets are subject to the spirit, and falling down, have twitchings, tumblings, and faintings through the influence of that spirit, being entirely under its control. Paul says, Let everything be done decently and in order, but here we find the greatest disorder and indecency in the conduct of both men and women, as above described. The same rule would apply to the falling, twitchings, swooning, shaking, and trances of many of our modern revivalists.
  12. Joanna Southcott professed to be a prophetess, and wrote a book of prophecies in 1804; she became the founder of a people that are still extant. She was to bring forth, in a place appointed, a son that was to be the Messiah, which thing has failed. Independent of this, however, where do we read of a woman that was the founder of a church, in the word of God? Paul told the women in his day to keep silence in the church, and that if they wished to know anything, to ask their husbands at home. He would not suffer a woman to rule, or to usurp authority in the church; but here we find a woman the founder of a church, the revelator and guide, the Alpha and Omega, contrary to all acknowledged rule, principle, and order.
  13. Jemima Wilkinson was another prophetess that figured largely in America in the last century. She stated that she was taken sick and died, and that her soul went to Heaven, where it still continues. Soon after, her body was reanimated with the spirit and power of Christ, upon which she set up as a public teacher and declared that she had an immediate revelation. Now the scriptures positively assert that Christ is the firstfruit, afterward those that are Christ’s at his coming, then comes the end. But Jemima, according to her testimony, died and rose again before the time mentioned in the scriptures. The idea of her soul being in Heaven while her body was living on earth is also preposterous. When God breathed into man’s nostrils, he became a living soul, before that he did not live, and when that was taken away his body died; and so did our Savior when the spirit left the body, nor did his body live until his spirit returned in the power of his resurrection. But Mrs. Wilkinson’s soul (life) was in Heaven, and her body without the soul (or life) on earth, living (without the soul or) without life.
  14. The Irvingites are a people that have counterfeited the truth, perhaps the nearest of any of our modern sectarians. They commenced about ten years ago in the city of London, in England; they have churches formed in various parts of England and Scotland, and some few in Upper Canada. Mr. Irving, their founder, was a learned and talented minister of the Church of Scotland. He was a great logician and a powerful orator, but withal wild and enthusiastic in his views. Moving in the higher circles, and possessing talent and zeal, placed him in a situation to become a conspicuous character, and to raise up a society similar to that which is called after his name.
  15. The Irvingites have apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and angels. They profess to have the gift of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, and, in some few instances, to the gift of healing.
  16. The first prophetic spirit that was manifested was in some Misses Campbell that Mr. Irving met with while on a journey in Scotland. They had (what is termed among their sect) utterances, which were evidently of a supernatural agency. Mr. Irving, falling into the common error of considering all supernatural manifestations to be of God, took them to London with him and introduced them into his church.
  17. They were there honored as the prophetesses of God, and when they spoke, Mr. Irving or any of his ministers had to keep silence. They were peculiarly wrought upon before the congregation and had strange utterances, uttered with an unnatural, shrill voice, and with thrilling intonations. They frequently made use of a few broken, unconnected sentences that were ambiguous, incoherent, and incomprehensible; at other times they were more clearly understood. They would frequently cry out, There is iniquity! There is iniquity! And Mr. Irving has been led, under the influence of this charge, to fall down upon his knees before the public congregation and to confess his sin, not knowing whether he had sinned, nor wherein, nor whether the thing referred to him or somebody else. During these operations, the bodies of the persons speaking were powerfully wrought upon, their countenances were distorted, they had frequent twitchings in their hands, and the whole system was powerfully convulsed at intervals; they sometimes, however, (it is supposed) spoke in correct tongues and had true interpretations.
  18. Under the influence of this spirit the church was organized by these women: apostles, prophets, etc., were soon called and a systematic order of things introduced, as above mentioned. A Mr. [Robert] Baxter (afterward one of their principal prophets) upon going into one of their meetings, says, I saw a power manifested and thought that was the power of God, and asked that it might fall upon me; it did so, and I began to prophesy. Eight or nine years ago they had about sixty preachers going through the streets of London testifying that London was to be the place where the two witnesses spoken of by John were to prophesy; that (they) — the church and the spirit — were the witnesses, and that at the end of three years and a half there was to be an earthquake and great destruction, and our Savior was to come. Their apostles were collected together at the appointed time watching the event, but Jesus did not come, and the prophecy was then ambiguously explained away. They frequently had signs given them by the spirit to prove to them that what was manifested to them should take place.
  19. Mr. Baxter related an impression that he had concerning a child. It was manifested to him that he should visit the child and lay hands upon it, and that it should be healed; and to prove to him that this was of God, he should meet his brother in a certain place, who should speak unto him certain words.
  20. His brother addressed him precisely in the way and manner that the manifestation designated. The sign took place, but when he laid his hands on the child it did not recover. I cannot vouch for the authority of the last statement, as Mr. Baxter at that time had left the Irvingites, but it is in accordance with many of their proceedings, and the thing never has been attempted to be denied.
  21. It may be asked, where is there anything in all this that is wrong?
  22. First. The church was organized by women, and God placed in the church first apostles, secondarily prophets, and not first women; but Mr. Irving placed in his church first women, secondarily apostles, and the church was founded and organized by them. A woman has no right to found or organize a church — God never sent them to do it.
  23. Second. Those women would speak in the midst of a meeting and rebuke Mr. Irving or any of the church. Now the scripture positively says, You shall not rebuke an elder, but entreat him as a father; not only this, but they frequently accused the brethren, thus placing themselves in the seat of Satan, who is emphatically called the accuser of the brethren.
  24. Third. Mr. Baxter received the spirit on asking for it, without attending to the ordinances, and began to prophesy, whereas the scriptural way of attaining the gift of the holy ghost is by baptism, and by laying on of hands.
  25. Fourth. As we have stated in regard to others, the spirit of the prophets are subject to the prophets; but those prophets were subject to the spirits, the spirit controlling their bodies at pleasure.
  26. But it may be asked how Mr. Baxter could get a sign from a second person? To this we would answer that Mr. Baxter’s brother was under the influence of the same spirit as himself, and being subject to that spirit he could be easily made to speak to Mr. Baxter whatever the spirit should dictate; but there was not power in the spirit to heal the child.
  27. Again it may be asked how it was that they could speak in tongues if they were of the Devil. We would answer that they could be made to speak in another tongue, as well as their own, as they were under the control of that spirit, and the Devil can tempt the Hottentot, the Turk, the Jew, or any other nation; and if these men were under the influence of his spirit, they of course could speak Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Italian, Dutch, or any other language that the Devil knew.
  28. Some will say, Try the spirits by the word. Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God. (1 John 4:2–3) [1 John 1:18]. One of the Irvingites once quoted this passage while under the influence of a spirit, and then said, I confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. And yet these prophecies failed, their messiah did not come, and the great things spoken of by them have fallen to the ground. What is the matter here? Did not the apostle speak the truth? Certainly he did — but he spoke to a people who were under the penalty of death the moment they embraced Christianity; and no one without a knowledge of the fact would confess it and expose themselves to death, and this was consequently given as a criterion to the church or churches to which John wrote. But the Devil on a certain occasion cried out, I know you, who you are, the Holy One of God. Here was a frank acknowledgment under other circumstances that Jesus had come in the flesh. On another occasion the Devil said, Paul we know, and Jesus we know — of course, come in the flesh. No man nor set of men without the regular constituted authorities, the Priesthood, and discerning of spirits can tell true from false spirits. This power they possessed in the apostles’ day, but it has departed from the world for ages.
  29. The church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has also had their false spirits; and as it is made up of all those different sects professing every variety of opinion, and having been under the influence of so many kinds of spirits, it is not to be wondered at if there should be found among us false spirits.
  30. Soon after the gospel was established in Kirtland, and during the absence of the authorities of the Church, many false spirits were introduced, many strange visions were seen, and wild, enthusiastic notions were entertained. Men ran out of doors under the influence of this spirit, and some of them got upon the stumps of trees and shouted, and all kinds of extravagances were entered into by them. One man pursued a ball that he said he saw flying in the air until he came to a precipice, when he jumped into the top of a tree, which saved his life; and many ridiculous things were entered into, calculated to bring disgrace upon the church of God, to cause the spirit of God to be withdrawn, and to uproot and destroy those glorious principles which had been developed for the salvation of the human family. But when the authorities returned, the spirit was made manifest, those members that were exercised with it were tried for their fellowship, and those that would not repent and forsake it were cut off. At a subsequent period a Shaker spirit was on the point of being introduced, and at another time the Methodist and Presbyterian falling down power, but the spirit was rebuked and put down, and those who would not submit to rule and good order were disfellowshipped. We have also had brethren and sisters who have had the gift of tongues falsely. They would speak in a muttering, unnatural voice, and their bodies be distorted like the Irvingites before alluded to, whereas there is nothing unnatural in the spirit of God. A circumstance of this kind took place in Upper Canada, but was rebuked by the presiding elder; another, a woman near the same place, professed to have the discerning of spirits, and began to accuse another sister of things that she was not guilty of, which she said she knew was so by the spirit, but was afterward proven to be false. She placed herself in the capacity of the accuser of the brethren, and no person through the discerning of spirits can bring a charge against another — they must be proven guilty by positive evidence, or they stand clear.
  31. There have also been ministering angels in the church which were of Satan, appearing as an angel of light. A sister in the state of New York had a vision, who said it was told her that if she would go to a certain place in the woods, an angel would appear to her. She went at the appointed time, and saw a glorious personage descending, arrayed in white, with sandy colored hair. He commenced and told her to fear God, and said that her husband was called to do great things, but that he must not go more than one hundred miles from home or he would not return; whereas God had called him to go to the ends of the earth, and he has since been more than one thousand miles from home and is yet alive. Many true things were spoken by this personage, and many things that were false. How, it may be asked, was this known to be a bad angel? By the color of his hair — that is one of the signs that he can be known by — and by his contradicting a former revelation.
  32. We have also had brethren and sisters who have written revelations and have started forward to lead this Church. Such was a young boy in Kirtland, Isaac Russell, of Missouri, and Gladden Bishop, and Oliver Olney of Nauvoo. The boy is now living with his parents who have submitted to the laws of the Church. Mr. Russell stayed in Far West, from whence he was to go to the Rocky Mountains, led by three Nephites; but the Nephites never came and his friends forsook him, all but some of the blood relations, who have since been nearly destroyed by the mob. Mr. Bishop was tried by the high council, his papers examined, condemned, and burned, and he cut off from the church. He acknowledged the justice of the decision, and said that he now saw his error, for if he had been governed by the revelations given before, he might have known that no man was to write revelations for the church but Joseph Smith, and begged to be prayed for, and forgiven by the brethren. Mr. Olney has also been tried by the high council and disfellowshipped because he would not have his writings tested by the word of God, evidently proving that he loves darkness rather than light because his deeds are evil.